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Japanese Americans object to proposed wind farm at WWII incarceration site

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A proposal to build one of the country's largest wind farms in Idaho is drawing opposition from Japanese Americans. About 400 turbines would be near a World War II incarceration site. Rachel Cohen from Boise State Public Radio reports.

KURT IKEDA: We're currently standing in block 22.

RACHEL COHEN, BYLINE: Kurt Ikeda leads visitors inside an old barrack at the Minidoka National Historic Site near Twin Falls, Idaho.

IKEDA: There's a bit of laundry and latrine over there. The bathrooms were not ready until December of 1943.

COHEN: Thirteen thousand Japanese Americans were imprisoned here over three years during World War II. The National Park Service has maintained Minidoka since 2001. Ikeda is a park ranger. His grandfather was incarcerated at a different site in Texas.

IKEDA: The only difference between Minidoka and where my grandfather was incarcerated is that it's not protected. It's not preserved. Crystal City is now a high school.

COHEN: He feels it's his role to protect what's left at Minidoka. Many Japanese Americans nationwide say the proposed wind farm on nearby federal public land threatens that. The Biden administration has set big goals for renewable energy. This project, called Lava Ridge, would help the transition away from fossil fuels to prevent the worst effects from climate change. The wind turbines could power more than 300,000 homes. Erin Shigaki is on board with Biden's goals.

ERIN SHIGAKI: And at the same time, he made promises to communities of color relating to environmental justice.

COHEN: Shigaki is a fourth-generation, or Yonsei, Japanese American. Many of her relatives were incarcerated at Minidoka. She's fighting the wind farm. She says it would change the experience of going to the historic site. It's meant to evoke a sense of loneliness.

SHIGAKI: So that modern-day people could understand what Japanese Americans saw and felt, you know, in that desert location.

COHEN: She made her position clear at an open house earlier this year to discuss a draft environmental review.

SHIGAKI: In their own report, it's acknowledged that there would be psychological harm done to our community if such a project were to go forward.

COHEN: The federal agency and private company proposing the wind project say they're listening to the community's concerns. They've proposed two alternative plans that would reduce the number of turbines, push them farther from Minidoka, up to nine miles away. To some, it's still not good enough.

KRISTEN BRENGEL: They haven't hit the mark yet on coming up with something that we could support.

COHEN: Kristen Brengel is with the National Parks Conservation Association. It's working with the Friends of Minidoka on a new designation for the historic site and surrounding public lands, something called an area of critical environmental concern. It would prevent wind turbines on more than 300 square miles.

BRENGEL: We don't want to fight every permit that comes up. There's going to be more. This isn't going to be the end. And so what we need to do is put some protections in place.

COHEN: Brengel says her organization also supports renewable energy. But she says the government needs to take a step back and choose the best places to site projects. The agency is reviewing 11,000 public comments it received on the draft report this spring. A final report and decision could be out this winter. In July, more than 200 people will make an annual pilgrimage to Minidoka that Erin Shigaki is organizing.

SHIGAKI: It's always a treat to have a gathering of survivors. They're all getting up there in their late 70s, 80s and 90s.

COHEN: She says the wind farm proposal will make this year's reunion that much more emotional. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Cohen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 23, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
In the audio of this story, as well as in a previous web version, the National Park Service's Kurt Ikeda said bathrooms were added to a barracks at a historic site in December of 1943. That is incorrect. Bathrooms were added in January of 1943.
Rachel Cohen joined Boise State Public Radio in 2019 as a Report for America corps member. She is the station's Twin Falls-based reporter, covering the Magic Valley and the Wood River Valley.

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